40 Years Later, Labor Leaders Remember NYC Chinatown Apparel Workers Strike

Forty years later, Katie Quan still vividly remembers the momentous strike by garment workers in New York’s Chinatown. Quan, who was 29 at the time, was one of the main organizers of the strike, in which more than 20,000 workers – mostly Chinese-born women – marched to Columbus Park on June 24, 1982, refusing to work and demanding greater wages and benefits.

Quan, now a senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, said it was the most significant class action Asian immigrant women in the US have ever been involved in. aroused a class consciousness within the community.

The 40th anniversary of the strike comes amid another wave of worker empowerment across the country, with hundreds of thousands of workers on strike and voting to unionize in recent months.

ILGWU members march through Chinatown to urge the remaining stores to sign the new contract, following the July 15, 1982 rally.
ILGWU members march through Chinatown to urge the remaining stores to sign the new contract, following the July 15, 1982 rally.Courtesy of The Kheel Center ILGWU Collection, Cornell University

“A lot of people just assumed that women wouldn’t want to go on strike,” Quan, now 69, told NBC Asian America. “They had never attended meetings and they had certainly never gone on strike before. They were pretty adamant in my factory. In fact, they put change in my hands and sent me to the pay phone. They said: ‘Call the union and say we want to strike.’”

It was the biggest strike in New York’s Chinatown history and one of the biggest for the apparel industry.

“The broader lesson is that there is definitely agency and power among Asian women,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be something to be afraid of.”

Women sewing clothes in Chinatown
Women work at a clothing factory in New York’s Chinatown on September 6, 1981.Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Quan was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, and later moved to New York City in 1975 to take advantage of the city’s robust apparel industry. At the time, large clothing brands hired small manufacturers, who hired workers to sew the pieces. She worked as a seamstress, responsible for sewing zippers and trouser waistbands. These were desirable jobs, she said, because they were unionized and offered benefits like health insurance and pensions.

“Chinatown was a working-class community. The men worked in restaurants and the restaurants were mostly not unionized,” Quan said. “Those who work non-union jobs in the restaurant industry were subsidized by their wives who worked in the apparel industry.”

She later became the manager of one of the biggest factories in Chinatown. This was a common route: some workers ended up saving enough money to buy or rent sewing machines and owned their own small manufacturing businesses.

Clothing workers unite and fight for better wages and better working conditions.
Clothing workers unite and fight for better wages and better working conditions.Courtesy of The Kheel Center ILGWU Collection, Cornell University

Most Asian garment workers at the time were newcomers from China and spoke little or no English. This language barrier has created a divide between Chinese-speaking staff and the leadership of the International Union of Women’s Garment Workers (ILDWU).

The 1982 strike began when some workers refused to renew their contracts, citing reduced wages and benefits, which was part of a broader trend by American manufacturers to reduce production and move work abroad amid the rise of globalization in the 1970s and 1980s. .

Tens of thousands of rallies followed the strike, and soon all the manufacturers agreed to sign the union’s pledge for salary increases and benefits.

Quan later wrote that the strike changed the dynamics of the Sino-American community.

ILGWU Local 23-25 ​​members and rally organizers at Chinatown Rally in support of new union contract which was held in Columbus Park, New York.  The rallies took place on June 24, 1982 and July 15, 1982.
ILGWU Local 23-25 ​​members and rally organizers at Chinatown Rally in support of new union contract which was held in Columbus Park, New York. The rallies took place on June 24, 1982 and July 15, 1982.Courtesy of The Kheel Center ILGWU Collection, Cornell University

“Prior to the strike, Chinese employers assumed they could count on their workers to support them because of ethnic solidarity, and likely assumed that, as traditionally raised women, workers would not fight Chinese men,” Quan wrote in 2009. But the 1982 strike clearly demonstrated that when labor issues are at stake, Chinese workers (both men and women) will act in their class interests, as they actually do in factories when they fight for higher prices per piece or have other disputes.” .

The mobilization of Chinese workers in 1982 was also a wake-up call for union leaders to work more closely with Asian-American workers, Quan said. She was later recruited to work with the ILDWU.

Members of ILGWU Local 23-25 ​​hold signs showing their support for the union contract during the Chinatown Rally in Columbus Park, New York.  The rallies took place on June 24, 1982 and July 15, 1982.
Members of ILGWU Local 23-25 ​​hold signs showing their support for the union contract during the Chinatown Rally in Columbus Park, New York. The rallies took place on June 24, 1982 and July 15, 1982.Courtesy of The Kheel Center ILGWU Collection, Cornell University

May Chen, another organizer of the strike, became a founding member of the Asian-Pacific-American Labor Alliance (APALA), formed in 1992, which is the first and only national organization of Asian-American and Pacific Island workers.

“The work of the garment workers strike really inspires every worker who is a part of the union today,” said Eunice How, president of the APALA Seattle chapter and community organizer for UNITE HERE, a union formed through the merger of the ILGWU and the Union. of Textile and Amalgamated Clothing Industry Workers. “We are celebrating the legacy of the frontline workers’ strike and reflecting on the leadership of activists such as garment workers.”

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